Mamacademic: how I hack parenthood, grad school, etc

Last week  I had the pleasure and privilege of participating in the Digital Media and Learning: Designing Learning Futures conference in Long Beach.  What was striking to me as a first-year female grad student was that this was the first time I had seen evidence of the fact that not only are we women represented in higher numbers in schools, but we could actually be represented on dais, in charge, doing the work.  There was no shortage of women whose careers provide a road map for those of us coming up behind them.  As I chatted and networked, I was asked again how I do it with three-year-old twins at home while working.  My gut instinct is to say  “I don’t know,” because I honestly don’t think about it that much.  But as my first year as a PhD student comes to an end, it might be useful to someone else for me to think through  how I do it.

Before I start with the tips and tricks, a few points I want to make.  First, this post is a little scary for me to write as I was told TO NEVER MENTION THAT I HAVE PROCREATED if I want to be taken seriously in the academe.  I have never explicitly blogged about parenthood here and even deleted my mommy blog. But as I look around, I sense the importance for us mamacademics to stick together a bit. Secondly, a few weeks ago, after being asked about how my kids were doing, I was told point blank that I was a bad mother for working and going to school while my kids were young. BY ANOTHER FEMALE ACADEMIC.  So I’m feeling a bit scrappy, to be honest. The surest way to motivate me to do the impossible is to tell me I can’t.  So, for all my sisters out there trying to do the balance, I give you my reflection on how I make it work (and some of the ways it doesn’t).


  • Sharpen your pencils before class: I like to make sure that I know my assets and that they are as well-tuned as possible. I work ahead whenever I have a free moment.  I know when my twins will play together so I can fire off an email and when they won’t. The Kindle is perfect for reading while cooking; the iPad even better. The idea here is that I map out when I can multitask and when I need to have a singular focus on the kids, housework, homework, or work-work and I plan accordingly. Why waste time when the kids are sleeping doing the laundry, when I can instead have them help me do it? Three-year olds love loading laundry into the washer.  Why try and send an email when they are crabby and just want to sit and read in my lap? I sit and read, naturally, and I don’t worry about it. Of course, flexibility is the watchword in all things, and I am sure to cut myself slack when it doesn’t go according to plan.
  • Do a Lit Review: At the end of this post, I have listed some useful articles I’ve read recently.  I habitually use waiting room time at appointments to beeline for the parenting magazines.  I will pull out my phone, bring up the Evernote app, and take pictures and notes of the articles I want to remember (or absent that, write them down with a pencil and paper). I have gotten more tips from this short activity than anywhere else. I have faith that I am not the first person to run out of craft activities during the winter, and a well-run craft activity at my house means getting dinner done more easily or another chapter read. I never stop searching for ideas and hacks to make my life as a parent run more smoothly.  Not to mention that my kids do not need me involved in their every activity.  I don’t really care about Thomas the Train, and that’s okay.  They don’t seem to care about Multiple Regression either. We can still be together.
  • Find a guidance committee: I have filled my support system with friends with no kids, friends who are working moms, friends who are in grad school with families, friends who are single in grad school, etc. Without this diversity of friendships, I know I would be much worse off. My friends without kids will babysit in a pinch. My friends who are working moms are great for commiserating. My grad school friends are the best motivators. Overall, my friends out of school’s healthy skepticism that a PhD is a good idea keep me the most honest (and prevent me from ever attempting to pepper my conversations with jargon. Ewwww.)
  • Everything is a practicum: I really love the idea of the practicum.  Here I get a chance to try out some little study, some tiny corner of my field with basically no risk. I can posit a theory that doesn’t pan out and it’s fine! Just as long as I learn something for the next round. I try to approach everything like this: I am going to try it, see what works, and when it doesn’t work out, take it as a learning experience.  If you think about it, sustaining a healthy marriage and raising kids never really have that definitive dissertation-finishing moment to them–it is generally a serious of trials and errors and sometimes actually learning something that works.
  • Write something everyday: I find that there are three things I require for optimal daily happiness: writing, exercising, and eating. I don’t try to do any of these perfectly, but I try to do at least all three every day.  I read a ton of stuff while riding on the elliptical (with the GoodReader app on the iPad, I can even annotate while getting my heart rate up).  Writing every day can mean something important and school-like or just for fun.  Living the life of the mind means letting it roam free over the page, and writing for no reason at all is great way to get me ready for writing things that matter. Also, I know that I ALWAYS regret eating sugar and caffeine, so I try to make sure that everything I put into my body is nourishing.  If I am not nourished, no way can I be a good employee, partner, mother, or student.
  • Try not to panic: I am including this one because it is the one I fail at most often.  Sometimes, the toys scattered across the floor make me want to sit and weep. If I get lost driving in the car, I can have a full-blown freak out. I try not to panic in front of the kids, but I also know that seeing mommy deal with the full range of human emotions is one of the ways they will learn to deal with their own. I try never to look past the next thing on the to-do list and I create said lists when I am in the proper mental state.  Sometimes that means AFTER I do the dishes, sometimes not.

Above all, cultivating a sense of compassion for myself, my colleagues, and really anyone I come across is essential. I can cut myself some slack.  This is not an easy road for anyone, and we are all trying our best. At the end of the day, if this grad school thing doesn’t work out, I still have my work and my family: I get to hedge my bets while trying something I love.  I remain my only judge and I let myself know when I am judging too harshly.   While I don’t always do this well, I always attempt to find that place of good enough.  Would I like to be perfect? Sure.  But good enough seems to be the place of sanity for me.

Any other tips/tricks you can give me as I go forward? Please leave them in the comments :) TIA!

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17 thoughts on “Mamacademic: how I hack parenthood, grad school, etc

  1. Just tweeted this, but great post Andrea, thank you. Found much of this useful for me as a work-at-home dad too.

    • I am so glad, Luke. I was afraid of sounding too global: I hate the assumptions made in some parenting magazines that our lives, just because we have offspring, are the same. I tried to speak for my situation in the hopes it would be useful. I realize how privileged I am to have such flexible working conditions, too. Working from home makes things a LOT smoother. Can’t wait to read your WAHD hack post!

  2. Such an inspiring post! Though I’m not an academic (or a mama yet), I’m already trying to figure out how I’m going to balance everything on my plate once kiddos come along. Have you ever checked out the WSJ’s “The Juggle” Blog? Totally worth putting in your reader. Lots of great articles about juggling parenthood/work/marriage-dom:

    • Shannon, so great to hear from you! I am definitely going to check out that blog as I am always looking for better ways to “juggle,” as it were. Thanks for the comment :)

  3. This is a great post with so many good tips! I’m definitely going to implement some of these once my baby is born. Thank you for refusing to be silenced as a mother in academia. There is no shame in owning up to what’s important to you and if family and children are part of that, then there is no reason to hide that. In fact, kudos to you for making scholarship work while parenting and bringing the full gammut of life experiences to your work as a researcher and teacher.

    (And thanks for the shout-out as well!)

    ~ S.

    • I am so glad you stopped by to comment! I just stumbled across academichic the other day and LOVED it. Your comments mean a lot to me. Good luck to you on the next leg of your adventure. Remember to sleep when the baby sleeps!! I still sneak a nap in when my boys nap: best thing going.

  4. Andrea,
    Already my hero, i’m glad to hear your scrappy voice on this topic. You know what I think! As to those who want to pass judgment on working moms, I would remind them (and you) that your kids see you engaged in a life of the mind and work that you love, every single day. Do you really want them to think the only thing to look forward to in their own adult lives is suburban, toy sorting, laundrywashing, dinner cooking bliss? The world’s a big and exciting place; its good for babies to see their mamas out in it.

    • Tanya,
      You are MY hero! I really appreciate your comments: they ring really true for me. I knew before I even had kids that not working was not an option. I just would miss it too much. Trying to strike the right balance is something my kids will need to learn to do as well as adults. Thanks for reminding me that this choice is a valid and healthy one (and how lucky I am to even have that choice when so many do not.).

  5. That’s really amazing. I have a friend who’s also going to school, working and raising a kid as well, and it always gets to me how people like you and her are able to do it all. I’m just doing grad school and working part time and I feel overwhelmed all too often. I think if you’re goal-oriented enough to know what you want and go to grad school for it, you should be commended not chastised for doing that and raising your children at the same time. Thanks for sharing.

    • Constant Writer,
      I really appreciate your comments. I think grad school is hard for all of us and each of our situations has its own challenges. I have supportive family and friends and I’ve lived in this community for most of my life, quite close to my support network. That is a luxury that many, many grad students do not have. I merely wanted to speak about my own experience in hopes it would help. I think working and going to school is overwhelming in its own ways, so kudos to you for doing it.

  6. You are awesome. Can I just say that first?

    I appreciate you putting all of this out on your blog. This is great advice for anyone wearing a lot of hats and while it may not be perfect and some of the tips may not work for everyone, it means a lot that you even took the time (out of your clearly busy schedule!) to share.

    It’s a shame that work/life balance and children are viewed in such a strange light by those in academia. Makes me think of that MLA interview dress code blog that went around a while back (gag). Thanks for giving us a dose of reality from that part of the education world.

    *Virtual fist-bump*

    • Mary,
      Your comments are so nice, thank you! I know I think you are awesome and can’t wait to see what you do next.

      Ugh: I remember that MLA dresscode post. It is amazing how much more work we have to do even when the majority of students are female!! Get it together academia!
      Thanks again for your support: *virtual fist-bump* returned :)

  7. […] the things I am learning and thinking about, as well as some of the ways I have figured out to read better, write better, or work better (also known as the gradhacking posts). After recent events in my journey to the Phd, I thought it […]

  8. Thank you for posting this! I’m entering my fourth year of my PhD program and about to start trying for a baby. When considering how it will all go work-wise (which, of course, is impossible to know) I alternate between self-soothing and total panic. Thanks for sharing your experiences and encouraging the self-soothing instinct in me!

    • Hi Chelsea,
      Good luck to you as you begin the journey! There will be times of panic and times of calm: just roll with it. For more self-soothingness, check out this month’s article in Scientific American Mind about the changes our brains go through after becoming mothers. At first, as the article says, I was a little foggy. But now I am sharper than before: an observation borne out by all kinds of scientific findings 😉 Here’s the link:
      Take care!

  9. Wow, so many things I want to say. I’m going to work this out in list form:
    1. Your workshop this morning was fantastic. As soon as you said “tell us why you write” and handed us over to colored post its, feathers, and little gem stones, I was sold. I’m working on an honors thesis (finishing up my undergrad) that looks at unconventional/emerging forms of text; essentially what are texts? What does writing about writing look like? What happens when we use a non-traditional form to speak? I’m interested in what composition can learn from craft! I want to know what writing looks like in various contexts.
    2. I attended a meeting on the MA and PhD programs in Comp/Rhetoric and it was emphasized there as well not to do it while having children, or not to expect things to go well if you had a family and other interests outside of your program. I wasn’t exactly discouraged; like you, I thought “okay, well, I’ve got something to prove.” However, I realize that this attitude exists within our discipline – and yet, is anyone questioning fathers who do this? Why is it always coming down on our shoulders? I thought, this morning, when you showed us – that girl is a great superhero for my daughter!
    3. I have to say, I always thought “hack” meant to undo or break apart. I never conceptualized it as an alternative, or a constructive deconstruction. :) I’ve used ikea hacker’s website a lot, but again, today really put that into perspective.
    4. I think I need to make something like this too – a mama’s guide to post-secondary education and beyond. I wonder if we could create an anthology? :) I’m working on a bit of research on barriers to post-secondary success, and trying to start a Family Resources/Campus Parents organization here at EMU. It’s hard, and it’s a lot of work….but what it all comes down to is support. Support will make or break you, depending on what you’re getting.

    I’m so glad I found this. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch. It’s always encouraging to meet other mamas who are defying stereotypes and pursuing what they love, career-wise, while still insisting on having a positive, nurturing family life. Like you said, compassion for yourself. Love it.

    I school-blog here:
    I mommy-blog here (I haven’t deleted mine yet, and I worry that I may have to someday):

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    Mamacademic: how I hack parenthood, grad school, etc | Andrea Zellner

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